Tell Your Children When You’re Wrong

Man kisses baby he's holding
By @kellysikkema via Unsplash

In one of the most poignant scenes from The Adam Project, Ryan Reynold’s character meets Jennifer Garner’s character by chance in a bar. Garner is Reynold’s mom, but she doesn’t recognize him because he has time-traveled into the past. He overhears her talking to the bartender about the difficulties she’s having with her son (Reynold’s younger self) in the wake of her husband’s death. Reynolds interjects to comfort his mom (which is tricky, since he’s a total stranger, as far as she knows). If this is hard to follow, just watch the clip. It’s less than three minutes long.

The line that really stuck with me from this was Reynolds telling Garner, “the problem with acting like you have it all together is he believes it.”

When I talked about this scene with Liz and Carl and Ben for a recent episode of Pop Culture on the Apricot Tree, I realized that there’s an important connection between this line and apologizing to our kids. And it’s probably not the reason you’re thinking.

The reason you’re thinking has to do with demonstrating to our kids how they should react to making a bad choice. This is also a good reason to apologize to your children. Admitting mistakes is hard. Guilt doesn’t feel good, and it takes practice to handle it positively. You don’t want to allow healthy guilt to turn into unhealthy shame (going from “I did bad” to “I am bad”). And you don’t want to allow the pain of guilt to cause you to lash out even more, like a wounded animal defending itself when there’s no threat. So yeah, apologize to your kids for your mistakes so they know how to apologize for theirs.

And, while we’re on the subject, don’t assume that apologizing to your kids will undermine your authority as a parent. It is important for parents to have authority. Your job is to keep your kids safe and teach them. This only works if you’re willing to set rules they don’t want to follow and teach lessons they don’t want to learn. That requires authority. But the authority should come from the fact that you love them and know more than they do. Or, in the words of the Lord to Joseph Smith, authority should only be maintained “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge” (D&C 121:41-42). If your authority comes from kindness and knowledge, then it will never be threatened by apologizing in those cases when you get it wrong.

In fact, this takes us to that second reason. The one I don’t think as many folks have thought of. And it’s this: admitting that you made a mistake is an important way of showing your kids how hard you’re trying and, by extension, demonstrating your love for them.

The only way to never make a mistake is to never push yourself. Only by operating well within your capabilities can you have a flawless record over the long run. Think about an elite performer like an Olympic gymnast or figure skater. They are always chasing perfection, rarely finding it, and that’s in events that are very short (from a few minutes to a few seconds). If you saw a gymnast doing a flawless, 30-minute routine every day for a month you would know that that routine was very, very easy (for them, at least).

You can’t tell if someone makes mistakes because they’re at the limits of their capacity or just careless. But if someone never makes mistakes, then you know that whatever they are doing isn’t much of a challenge.

So what does that tell your kid if you never apologize? In effect, it tells them that you have it all together. That, for you at least, parenting is easy.

That’s not the worst message in the world, but it’s not a great one either. Not only is it setting them up for a world of hurt when they become parents one day, but you’re missing an opportunity to tell them the truth: that parenting is the hardest thing you’ve ever done, and you’re doing it for them.

Don’t take this too far. You don’t want to weigh your kids down with every worry and fear and stress you have. You don’t want to tell them every day how hard your job is. That’s a weight no child should carry. But it’s OK to let them know—sparingly, from time to time—that being a parent is really hard. What better, healthier way to convey that than to frankly admit when you make a mistake?

“The problem with acting like you have it all together is he believes it. Maybe he needs to know that you don’t. It’s OK if you don’t.”

1 thought on “Tell Your Children When You’re Wrong”

  1. Love this. I’d add that it helps acclimate kids to the idea that authorities in general are making massive compromises within terrifying limits. Growing up, I had real trouble with my school’s modest anti-bullying message because I knew perfectly well that it was the school that made me ride buses and walk halls with tons of other kids and virtually no supervision. So they claimed to be against bullying, but ensured it, and then gave some vague gestures to “developing social skills” as a benefit to such unsupervised time, which made it seem like they were cultivating beatings as an incentive to suck up to bullies enough that we’d stop getting beaten. It was a marvelous change for me to accept that the people in charge were genuinely caring, kind people who had no resources to deploy to prevent these problems, and they were making the best of it they could.

    When we as authorities for children acknowledge and apologize for even the things we couldn’t do better (but which still suck for kids), we validate their feelings, show them that we care about their suffering even when we can’t prevent it all, and help them see responsibility more clearly which signals to them what changes might be in their power to make when they grow.

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